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Albion and Albanius by Louis Grabu, and: Venus and Adonis by John Blow (review)
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Ever since 1878, when Novello & Company began publishing the first round of The Works of Henry Purcell, the British Orpheus has held a privileged place among the composers of late seventeenth-century England. Through the Society’s long-standing efforts (an ongoing, revised ‘Works II’ series was begun in the 1960s to replace the outmoded ‘Works I’ volumes), Purcell and his music have remained consistently in the public eye, with a large portion of his output being regularly performed, both in live venues and on recordings. This is all to the good, and Purcell certainly deserves every bit of the attention he has received. But a composer-centred publishing scheme also has its drawbacks, most obviously the canonization of its object to the exclusion of other worthy contributors to the musical world in which that composer functioned. In this sense, the Purcell Society’s single-minded focus on its eponymous hero has at times had what might even be described as a regressive effect on musicians’ access to the musical culture of Restoration England. When, for example, the nine-movement theatre suite for the 1688 revival of Beaumont and Fletcher’s The Double Marriage was discovered to be not by Purcell but rather the work of Louis Grabu, it was summarily removed from the revised ‘Works II’ edition, and can now be found in printed form only by consulting the corresponding ‘Works I’ volume, edited by Alan Gray in 1906. The same is true of the better-known music for The Tempest, which, however, managed to make it onto a recording before also being demoted to the category of ‘not by Purcell’.

Thus, it is with much anticipation and gratitude that we can welcome the Society’s latest initiative: a ‘Companion Series’ that aims to publish, as the Society’s website puts it, ‘music by some of Purcell’s contemporaries, composers who were important influences on Purcell’. This valuable new series, the advent of which coincides with the transfer in 2007 of the Society’s publishing activities from Novello to Stainer & Bell, promises not only to open our eyes to hitherto under-appreciated non-Purcellian musical material from the latter half of the seventeenth century, but also to provide an open-ended future for the Society as a publishing venture, even after all of the ‘Works II’ volumes have been completed. The Companion Series also provides opportunities for creative new ways of approaching editorial problems, as can be seen in Bruce Wood’s dual-version edition of Venus and Adonis, one of the two volumes under review here.

The current roster of present and future publications in the series (six volumes in all at the time of writing) is already wide ranging, including vocal and instrumental works, single-composer volumes and collections, and dramatic and non-dramatic pieces. Perhaps fittingly, given Purcell’s enduring fame as a composer for the theatre, the first two volumes feature important theatrical compositions by two of his most influential contemporaries. John Blow’s court masque Venus and Adonis (c.1683) is known for its connections to the better-known Dido and Aeneas (?1684 or ?1687, depending upon whom one asks), while Louis Grabu’s opera Albion and Albanius (1685) has important relationships with Dido and Aeneas, Dioclesian (1690), and King Arthur (1691). Despite notable differences in their performance circumstances, musical and dramatic scope, rhetorical positions, and source material (not to mention their modern reception), both works are closely associated with the court of Charles II, and hence make a kind of complementary pair.

Perhaps the greatest operatic extravaganza ever witnessed in England prior to the eighteenth century, Albion and Albanius has long lain in obscurity, thanks in large part to a chauvinistic bias against the French-trained Catalan Grabu and a vicious contemporary campaign of disparagement against the opera’s librettist, the Poet Laureate John Dryden. Such neglect is in many respects surprising, since aside from Venus and Adonis and Matthew Locke’s 1659 masque Cupid and Death, Albion is the only pre-1690 English operatic work whose music survives in its entirety: Grabu published the complete score in 1687 in a grandiose act of self-promotion that probably ruined him financially, and multiple...


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